Global civil society alliance, CIVICUS condemns the 3 August sentencing of 18 Muslim leaders, protestors and journalists in Ethiopia under the country’s widely criticised anti-terrorism law. Heavy sentences handed out to the religious rights activists represent a serious violation of their rights to freedom of association, assembly and expression.
The mass sentencing of the 18 individuals for leading and reporting on peaceful protests in support of religious freedom represents another low for fundamental rights in Ethiopia. While imprisoned bloggers were released in advance of President Obama’s visit to the country last month, Ethiopian authorities have once again demonstrated their contempt for civil society and human rights principles through this latest conviction.
On 3 August, the Ethiopian Federal High Court sentenced the 18 Muslim leaders to between 7 and 22 years in prison. The group included two journalists with Ye’Muslimoch Guday (Muslim Affairs) newspaper, 10 activists and 6 members of the Muslim Arbitration Committee, who were nominated to represent the Muslim community in discussions with the government. The defendants were found guilty on 6 July, charged under the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation for their role in leading and reporting on anti-government demonstrations between 2012 and 2013.
Several of the religious freedom activists were reportedly deprived of due process during their trial and detention, including restricted access to legal representation. Moreover, portions of the judicial proceedings were closed to the public, including the media, diplomats, and family members of defendants.
Since 2012, thousands of Muslims have staged wide-scale protests in the capital, Addis Ababa, calling on the government to cease attempts to dictate internal religious affairs of the Muslim community, which they say have included attempts to engineer the elections of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, the official Muslim authority in the country. On at least four occasions, security forces used unwarranted and excessive force, including firing live ammunition and tear gas to disperse protestors.
The recent sentencing is unquestionably part and parcel of the Ethiopian Government’s unabated campaign to silence any criticism of its actions. The country’s few remaining independent bloggers, journalists and civil society organisations remain an endangered lot whose persecution must not be overlooked by the international community, including Ethiopia’s development partners.